Consumer mood dips in March, inflation view up

NEW YORK Fri Mar 16, 2012 11:01am EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Consumer sentiment dipped in early March as rising gasoline prices pushed Americans' inflation expectations for the next year higher, a survey showed on Friday.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading on the overall index on consumer sentiment slipped to 74.3 from 75.3 in February, contrary to economists' forecasts for a gain to 76.0.

Even so, consumers did not expect the run-up in gasoline prices to last very long and anticipated further gains in employment this year.

"Overall, the data indicate that $4 gasoline has lost its shock value, although the drain on discretionary income will still affect spending, mostly among lower-income households," survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.

"If gasoline prices approach $5 per gallon, however, a widespread and substantial impact is likely."

The survey's one-year inflation expectation accelerated to its highest since last May at 4.0 percent from 3.3 percent last month. The gain in the five-to-10-year inflation outlook was more muted, edging up to 3.0 percent from 2.9 percent.

"I think the overriding message is we can handle gas prices at their current level but if they go any higher it's going to be a problem," said Christopher Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York.

U.S. stocks .SPX cut gains immediately following the data and were trading little changed in the early morning.

The barometer of current economic conditions edged up to 84.2 from 83.0, while a gauge of consumer expectations fell to 68.0 from 70.3.

Increases in employment were reported by 38 percent of respondents, a record high for the third straight month.

There was also a divide between lower-income Americans and higher earners. Concerns about higher gas prices dominated the responses of lower-income households, while employment and wage gains were the focal point of consumers with incomes over $75,000.

(Reporting by Leah Schnurr, Additional reporting by Emily Flitter; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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